Last year, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, issued a dire warning about a growing crisis of gender inequality online, decrying the relentless and often sexualized harassment of female public figures and a rise in online violence, from threatening messages to non-consensual publication of private images.
Berners-Lee’s concern is well founded: online harassment of women is pernicious and alarmingly widespread. One global survey found that more than half of women and girls between the ages of 15 and 25 had experienced online abuse.
Too often, this abuse succeeds in silencing women. More than three-quarters of those who experienced cyber-harassment said it affected their online participation, leading them to reduce or self-censor their communication—or even leave their jobs or skip school.
But in researching Awakening, our upcoming book about the global #MeToo movement, we unearthed another side of this story: while the Internet has reproduced many of the dangers that women face in the real world, it has also provided a space for women to collaborate out of the public eye, organize across borders, and raise their voices en masse, thereby bestowing a new form of collective power and fueling a global surge of activism for women’s rights.
The Other Side
Historically, revolutions have begun when groups discover that their grievances are not individual but rather collective and systemic. In many nations, however, women are often excluded from or under-represented in the very places where that organizing occurs: media, government, education, and business. To accelerate the movement for power and equality, they needed a place to share stories and amass participants, one that would be safe even in communities that prevented women from speaking or appearing in public.
In short, they needed the Internet.
Today, social media has become an alternative public square for women—especially in countries where their physical spaces and activism are constrained by state control, cultural norms, or violence—and has facilitated the spread of the #MeToo hashtag in dozens of languages to more than 100 countries. The low cost of digital connectivity has increased the speed, scale, and diversity of the global women’s movement, rapidly accelerating the pace of change.
It’s a pattern we’ve seen repeated all over the world. As the #MeToo movement ignited globally, organizers employed social media to inspire and train each other across country lines, trading tips about how to gain media coverage and win policy reform.
Women also used digital tools to surmount local challenges—such as Chinese activists deploying blockchain technology to circumvent censorship of the #MeToo hashtag, or Swedish industry leaders relying on private Facebook groups to accrue anonymous abuse complaints without fear of publicity or reprisal.
In Egypt, #MeToo activists continue to speak out on Twitter, even as an authoritarian regime alleges that their campaign amounts to terrorism and “fake news,” while in Tunisia, #EnaZeda activists now use digital-organizing skills from the 2011 revolution to ensure the new government upholds women’s equality. In northern Nigeria, #ArewaMeToo survivors of sexual abuse and harassment organize on Whatsapp to push for new laws, despite the daily threat of Boko Haram. And in Pakistan, young women turn to social media to make allegations of sexual harassment and assault when police or the courts won’t take them seriously.
To be sure, women continue to face grave risks on the Internet, and opponents of this surging movement are using social media to try to silence the groundswell of voices now proclaiming, “Me too.” But 21st-century digital tools have been transformative for women, fueling the most widespread cultural reckoning on gender inequality in history—and transforming the way that women’s rights are sought, fought, and won across the globe.
Meighan Stone and Rachel Vogelstein’s Awakening: #MeToo and the Global Fight for Women’s Rights will be published on July 13 by PublicAffairs